Let’s un-man the stereotype

By Gina Velde

Automated aerial mapping has transformed the way we survey large, inaccessible areas, yet the term ‘unmanned’ appears to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes all too common in both the aviation and geospatial industries. And as hobbyist and low quality systems with their associated safety concerns are becoming commonplace, the term falls short of an accurate description that reflects the huge safety benefits this technology brings to the mining, construction and surveying industries.

Aviation is one of the most gender stereotyped industries in the world, with men making up the vast majority of airline executives and pilots, women the flight attendants and booking receptionists. A recent campaign by Virgin Australia to put ‘the romance back’ in flying seemed to reinforce these stereotypes, with male pilots flanked by glamorous female flight attendants and a call back to the ‘good old days’ of flying. Sure, they have the odd token woman pilot in their adverts, but in the main male pilots lead the flock of pretty, red-lipsticked cabin crew. And that’s not to single out Virgin Australia as an exception, almost all airline websites feature similar images.

The geospatial industry stereotypes may not be quite as glamorous, but the roles are still neatly defined: men predominate in the board rooms and out in the field, women in receptionist, marketing and accounting roles.


When automated aerial mapping was introduced to the geospatial industry in 2011, the two industries crossed paths for the first time. Yet despite the groundbreaking technology that has revolutionised the way we survey large areas or monitor and inspect hard to reach structures, the accepted industry terms use gender-stereotyped language that is all too common in both industries.

‘Unmanned Aerial Systems’ or UAS has become the widely used term to describe either fixed wing or multi-rotor solutions for a range of different industries. It may seem a perfectly adequate description and it has the advantage of differentiating these industry-specific solutions from the more generic term ‘drone’ with all its negative connotations to do with war and espionage.

You may also think the word ‘unmanned’ is harmless given its route in the word ‘mankind’ (and so far there’s been no push to change this to ‘peoplekind’), yet the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘not having or needing a crew or staff’ is technically incorrect when it comes to describing these systems, as they require a certified pilot on the ground to control them.

When looking for alternatives that would enable us to keep the UAS or UAV acronym that has become widely accepted as an industry term, it seems that all the variations fall short. ‘Unattended’ suggests the aircraft is left to its own devices, ‘uninhabited’ suggests unchartered landscapes and hardly rolls off the tongue, ‘unpiloted’ is better but ignores the fact that there is a certified pilot on the ground who went through rigorous training and is in control at all times. ‘Unoccupied’ is perhaps the most technically correct option and provides a gender inclusive alternative if we are to keep the acronym.

We are doing the technology a disservice by not reinforcing its safety benefits and supporting gender neutrality in our language.

Pushing for gender equality is highly topical, given recent campaigns by major Australian companies such as ANZ bank to create an ‘equal future’ for the next generation. In an emotive video whereby young girls read out statistics such as “women make up 40% of the world’s workforce, yet control only a ¼ of the world’s wealth,” the campaign states that although girls learn to read and talk faster than boys, “the system’s not designed for women to succeed.”